TRON Legacy: A postmortem

•February 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There’s an old saying William Goldman likes to quote to explain stuff in Hollywood that nobody can possibly explain: “nonrecurring phenomenon.” Usually it’s used to explain fluke successes and why executives don’t want to try them again because they’re against conventional wisdom. (“Nobody wants to see films about old people in love.” “What about ‘On Golden Pond?’” “Nonrecurring phenomenon.”)

I’ve become convinced that the entire existence of “Tron: Legacy” is one giant nonrecurring phenomenon – a series of improbable events, each less likely than the last, that added up the Disney folks saying “Sure, let’s toss $170 million at this and make it our biggest live-action franchise wager of the year.”

A whole bizarre line of events led to this movie being made: Jeff Bridges being totally into it. Getting enough cash to create a compelling trailer. Massive nerd interest translating in some execs’ minds to actual public interest. The amazing nerve it took to pass off an effects test as an actual teaser. And so forth.

Plus, it wouldn’t exactly be the craziest franchise to ever make a buck. It’s infinitely marketable, has plenty of room to grow as a franchise, and nobody wants to be the guy ten years ago who said “Movies based on a Disney World pirate ride? It’ll never work.”For a studio seriously in search of a tentpole, “Tron” seemed ideal. Just enough built-in interest and faint memory to get people coming, but enough of a blank slate to do it your own way.

And most importantly, even though nobody in pop culture really remembers “Tron”, a whole generation of computer obsessive sure does. Anyone who’s ever juggled a pixel at least remembers, if not idolizes, the original. And the greatest computer animation nerd on the planet is calling the shots at Disney. Something this big doesn’t go out the door without John Lasseter’s say-so – and I don’t think he has it in him to shoot down a TRON SEQUEL. Hell, he probably viewed all the downsides of the original as a bonus. The Pixar gang are as famously dedicated to story structure as they are to animation; how many late-night bull sessions, I wonder, devolved into “Here’s how we could have saved ‘Tron’ if WE’D been in the story meetings”? And now here’s their shot at making “Tron,” but better.

(Iroincally, this is both bad and good. Good because the whole daddy-issues thing was done much more elegantly than in most current attempts at the idea; bad because applying any kind of traditional structure starts to break down the whole deal of what makes Tron interesting. Garrett Hedlund’s light-up tracksuit might as well have had ‘Hero’s Journey’ written in neon. Plus, the internal logic of Tron hinged on it being a video game and following video game rules – why do they drive around in light cycles trying to kill each other? Because they’re video games and that’s what they do. To get that logic to apply to Legacy requires a certain amount of handwaving.)

Hell, in the end I’m not sure even Tron Legacy knows what it’s ABOUT. Does information want to be free? Does information need to be controlled? The original was all about corporate software piracy, which was kind of neat because you had this very practical argument about stolen video games being filtered through this dystopian freedom fighter metaphor. By the end of Legacy, I couldn’t remotely tell you what the lesson was, except maybe “hug your kids a lot more.”

But I digress. The perfect storm presented itself, and then you had the wild bumper-cars game of nobody talking to anybody else. I’m convinced the marketing guys and alternate-reality-game designers were freewheeling renegades operating with next to no oversight. While everyone else was engaging in a debate about why Cindy Morgan wasn’t in the movie and the director is explaining that she’s probably dead in this timeline, the ARG guys are rolling her out at viral events playing in character as Lori Bradley, married 20 years to Alan.

Then you throw in the very bizarre way it was handled, staying in perfect continuity with the first but Disney also being so nervous about the original that they pulled it from all public view so it wouldn’t chase CGI-happy audiences away from the new one. I’m not sure that was the best idea. Still, I’m not aware of a franchise ever picking up where it left off after so long an absence. “Superman Returns” and its fetishizing of the Donner films comes close, but even then, it was a halfway-reboot, and that was a massively successful franchise rather than a huge gamble.

And I think the reverence for the source material both helped and hurt – mostly in that they had no idea what to do with the character of Tron himself. If you hadn’t seen the original, the only reason it’s dramatic when you learn who he actually is, is because his name is in the damn title. We’ll see if future work plays off this better.

The reverence worked well, though, in that Bridges and a woefully underused Bruce Boxleitner really, really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

TRON was very much a product of its time, a reflection of a zeitgeist and so in tune with things that I’m not sure even the creators understood that they’d stumbled into iconic territory. The triumvirate of showman/tech nerd/corporate jerk closely tracks the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/John Sculley dynamic that completely defined computing in the 1980s – a couple of years before that dynamic even EXISTED. Most of this probably comes from Bonnie MacBird’s intensive research into programmer culture of the late 1970s, along with Alan Kay’s considerable input. “Legacy” doesn’t have this kind of intellectual underpinning, and it hurt all the more for it. It tries, I think, but enough homework wasn’t done to make it all add up. The “information wants to be free – OR DOES IT?” theme being played around with that never really seems to go anywhere, and the creators tried very hard to NOT reflect the current cultural zeitgeist – this is a computer world in which the Internet is intentionally nonexistent. They had some reasonable structural concerns about this, but the end result is that it doesn’t live up to the original, which even today is a surprisingly durable metaphor about computing of the times.

So. $300 million worldwide later, “Tron: Legacy” is the DAMNDEST thing to quantify. It made enough money to be successful, but it’s not exactly the “Pirates of the Caribbean” of this decade either. But it turned out a lot better than “Speed Racer,” successwise. (As an aside, I’m convinced “Speed Racer” would have done considerably better in 2011 than 2008 – the 3D craze alone would have given it more of an edge.) We’ve still got the “Uprising” TV series, whatever easter eggs are on the DVD, and a probably sequel on the way. We’ll see how it goes.

For me, at least, I’m glad that the whole Tron mythos, in all its cheesy “Greetings, programs!” glory, was at least back at the forefront of pop culture for a moment. If nothing else, it was a fun trip down memory lane.